Historical Jesus Contrarian

Historical Jesus Contrarian October 10, 2012

Well, I didn’t get to attend the Historical Jesus conference last weekend led by Chris Keith and Anthony LeDonne, but I’ve seen a couple reports taking me to task for my view, which was part of the book published, though I’m not sure the posts are taking my definitions seriously enough, so let me clarify. I do realize my view of historical Jesus studies is contrarian, but it’s hardly new. It’s a bit like Martin Kähler and a bit like Jimmy Dunn, but not identical to either.

What I say emerges from my own work in historical Jesus studies, and you can read my own approach to historiography in Jesus and His Death: Historiography, the Historical Jesus, and Atonement Theories, published by Baylor University Press. It also emerges from more than five years of working in the Historical Jesus Seminar of the SBL at the Annual Meetings.

Point 1: My contention is that historical Jesus studies are all about reconstructing what Jesus was really like. They are the attempt to get behind the Gospels (and the Creed) to the real Jesus, the one who walked and taught and ministered in the Galilee and Judea.

Point 2: My contention is further that this reconstruction occurs over against the church’s Jesus, which is found in the Gospels (four presentations, not four “gospels” — not four “Jesuses” either, but four gospels presenting the Story of the one Jesus in four ways) and then developed even more in the Creed. The point of departure for historical Jesus studies is that the church either got Jesus wrong or said too much. The historical Jesus will be the real Jesus over against the church’s more theologized Jesus.

If you don’t accept these two premises, we have no discussion. If you do, we’ve got one. Again: it’s about reconstruction over against what the church thinks. Historical Jesus studies are decidedly contrarian to orthodoxy and the church and even the Gospels, if I may say so, and that is why they subject the church’s Jesus to criticism.

Point 3: And my contention is that historical Jesus studies, because it is all about reconstructing Jesus over against what the church has always believed, are of no use to the church. Why? Because the church knows what it believes about Jesus: The Gospels are the first source and then the Creed will be the second source for what the Church believes. [I want to avoid the Creed vs. Canon debate for this post because I’m intent on explaining what it means to do “historical Jesus studies.”]

My contention is not that it is impossible to do historical Jesus studies — in other words, I do think historical methods, when folks stick to the methods, can discover what the method permits for discovery. (That’s the historical Jesus as reconstructed on the basis of methods, and my Jesus and His Death is that kind of historical Jesus book.) Some have said it is impossible to do historical Jesus studies because we don’t have any brute facts to interpret in another way. I disagree; I do think the methods are useful for historical purposes.

Point 4: My contention, further, is that “examining the Jesus of the Gospels [canonical Jesus] in his Jewish context” is not the same as “historical Jesus studies.” Canonical Jesus study sets an interpreted Jesus [canonical Jesus] in his Jewish context while historical Jesus study gets behind the canonical Jesus to the (less interpreted) real Jesus and sets that reconstructed figure in his historical context. I’m all for historical study of the canonical Jesus.

Point 5: And my contention is that the Gospels are already interpretations of Jesus, that is, the Gospel writers were “historians” in some sense and strung together facts about Jesus into a narrative that was designed to “gospel” Jesus to its readers. That is the church’s Jesus, the canonical Jesus, and that is the Jesus the church believes in. The creedal Jesus develops the canonical Jesus, and even if many think the creedal Jesus said too much, that does not change that the creedal Jesus is also the church’s Jesus.

If the church opts for the historical Jesus, it must choose to disregard the canonical Jesus for a reconstruction of Jesus on the basis of historical methods.

"Well, this statistic and issue has floated around since 1990s. Others have since raised the ..."

Mimi Speaks: Weaponizing Ideas Against Women
"I'm no Sotomayor fan, but this is an interview, on video, not just an article."

Thanks SCOTUS Justice Sotomayor
"Because when you see someone do something positive and out of the norm (the norm ..."

Thanks SCOTUS Justice Sotomayor

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • RJS

    Isn’t the point of historical Jesus studies, for many at least, to get back to the real man that the church mythologized and divinized?

  • scotmcknight

    RJS, That is what it is about. The assumption is the church mythologized and divinized; the goal is to de-divinize Jesus. The church believes Jesus is God incarnate, divine, etc.. So HJS brackets what the church believes so it can find what the church does not believe.

  • CGC

    Okay Scot,
    I knew there were other reasons I liked you so much 🙂 I did not know you were such a contrarian but I have always been attracted to contrarians (not the anti-institutional or anti-American types or whatever but those who take fresh approaches and think outside the box). When people can not peg you down as a theological conservative or theological liberal, you’re probably a contrarian. When the right and left dislike what you are saying, you are probably a contrarian. When you won’t take sides within a polarized debate because you see problems with both sides, you’re probably a contrarian! To all the theological contrarians out there, may your tribe greatly increase!

  • CGC

    Hi Scot,
    I read Tyler Stewart’s critigue of you and I noticed two things: (1) He does not understand your more nuanced approach; and (2) there is a kind of smuggled in postmodernism when it comes to doing historical studies. For those who agree with the assumptions of postmodernism, Stewert’s critique will appear strong. But for those of us who do not hold these assumptions, I find his critique both weak and problematic.

    I was going to attend the Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity Conference but you were the main person I wanted to hear in the conference. Since the place changed and you could not go, I did not attend either. Actually, I did not know until this post that this was your overall approach on this topic. I actually thought I was going to be the only contrarian at the conference but I am glad to see that we are in very similar places, even on important subjects like this. I thought you were going to be one of the status quo guys so I am glad I was wrong.
    People can defend the HJS all they want but at the end of the day, has this approach led people closer to Jesus or farther away from him? So many scholars seem to want to jump on a boat because they think it might be a cruise ship never really asking where is this boat taking us?

  • Josh T.


    So by your definitions of what it means to do historical Jesus studies, does N.T. Wright do historical Jesus studies? Or perhaps something else?

  • CGC

    Hi Josh and all,
    Yes, N. T. Wright does HJS. I would say there is not anything wrong with Scot’s point one on doing this but it’s point two that leads to theological problems. N. T. Wright has a tendency to pit Jesus against the creeds and the church but at the end of the day, the Jesus we are left with or still have looks strikingly similar to the Jesus of the creeds and the church’s Jesus (even if Wright has simply filled in the details or lines more rather than redrawing the picture all together).

    There are many approaches and tools people can utilize at interpreting history or getting at Jesus. Certainly there are insights we have gained from HJS. Some methodologies are more problematic and some more helpful than others. At the end of the day, historical studies of the Bible or Jesus should not be done privately or part of an elite club where everybody thinks similarly but “with” the church, and not “without” the church or “against” the church.

    The reason Wright is doing the church a service rather than a dis-service is he is not only a biblical scholar but he is also a churchman. Wright does his theologizing for the church so that the church can be better for it and not worse. So even though some of the tools Wright brings to the table or methodologies may not all be good from my viewpoint (who has perfect tools or methodology?), what Wright is doing is of real value to the church if the church will listen to him rather than simply reacting against him or worse, thinking Wright is an enemy of faith rather than a friend.

  • scotmcknight

    Josh T, that’s an interesting question, to be sure. The quest of the HJ is to discard the tradition (Gospels, Creed) and get behind it al to the Jesus before he became the orthodox Christian Jesus. In that sense, I see Tom’s work to be both HJ study — after all, his whole approach is that of a historian — and apologetics — and I don’t think Tom intends to wear that mantle — in that his conclusions confirm the Gospels’ picture of Jesus, especially the messianic status of Jesus.

    Some HJ scholars have told me they don’t think Tom is doing HJ study since he’s too theological and orthodox; further, Tom never concludes something in the Gospels is inauthentic, which is the name of the game for HJ studies.

  • RJS


    Wright does historical Jesus studies of a sort – but he does it without the underlying agenda of getting back to the real man that the church mythologized and divinized. I found Wright’s work liberating (and I have read all three of his big books and look forward to the next) because it allowed me to see how this piece of the agenda colored so much of the rest of the work (from the Jesus Seminar and more).

  • CGC

    Thanks RJS,
    Good comments from both you and Scot . . . It seems to me that there is a difference between Wright’s “big books” which I find outstanding and his popular smaller works that sometimes gets him in trouble with the Reformed crowd. I can’t wait till his “Paul and the Faithfulness of God” comes out. Not only is this a thousand page work, but I guess there is going to be two more volumes to this work? With all the focus on Jesus and Paul, I wonder about Luke? (since his two volumes alone make up roughly half of the NT).

    I was at a conference with Wright where I begged him to write a book on ecclesiology since the modern church is so messed up here. He told me that this area was not his thing even though I think he is a very capable scholar to write on just about any theological topic. Any way, I can still hope and pray . . .

  • I like Josh’s question (#5). I think there are others besides Wright who seem to be working off of your points above Scot but who use the “historical Jesus” language.

  • Steve


    I could not have said it better myself! The whole premise of the historical Jesus movement starts with “the Bible got it wrong.” This flys in the face of inspiration and inerrancy. Either we believe the Bible or we don’t. Yet so many “evangelical” scholars are caught up in this sort of study, claiming some sort of modern or postmodern enlightenment and freedom of interpretation based on secular and biased processes.

  • Patrick O

    Speaking of Wright, one of the more genuinely helpful and interesting books for me on this topic has been that classic Interpretation of the New Testament written first by Stephen Neill then expanded by Wright, bringing the study all the way to 1986. It was required reading for my Bible/Theology senior seminar at Wheaton, and really has been a great boon to me since then.

    Not only is it a fascinating history of the history writing of the New Testament, it’s also a rather rousing read. For those of us not specializing in New Testament studies or the particular historiography that such studies entail, it offers a great insight into the history and methodology of the last 150 years or so. Or at least I think it does–I’m curious if more qualified experts share a positive opinion about it.

  • Steve (#11),
    I appreciate your enthusiastic response to Scot (with one “T”) McKnight’s post. Yet, I would encourage you to read Christian Smith’s *The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not an Evangelical Reading of Scripture.* Your “Either we believe the Bible or we don’t” carries a boatload of assumptions that need to be explored, without in any way denigrating the Bible.

  • Andy J. Funk

    An issue I have with HJS, is the presupposition that we can discover, through rational, objective analysis, what Jesus was “actually” like. The interpretative process is solidly “modern” in its scientific method, and its demand on pure rational and absolute “objectivity” is at best misleading. Scot, I share in the concern that this method seems to separate the “real” Jesus from the Jesus of the Gospels. Any knowledge of the biblical Jesus cannot be separated from the traditions of the Christian Church’s history. This search for the “real” or “the way it truly was”, seems to be a quest that the biblical narratives do not elicit, but rather is an appeal to control and power over history and identity. This is one way to approach interpretation, though I think it is not a very viable option for faithful interpretation. This approach also seems to move toward arrogance, in that it assumes that up until recently, we’ve always had Jesus wrong. It presumes to be able to get at the absolute and clear “original” meaning or identity, and in the end offers what it considers the “full” picture a.k.a. the one and only witness to who Jesus/God is/was. Those are my initial thoughts on the “Historical Jesus” project.

  • Scot,
    While we rightly hold suspect HJS seeking to find the “real Jesus” behind the canonical/creedal Jesus, hasn’t there been, on the other hand, a fearful reluctance in more conservative evangelicalism to do serious historical Jesus studies at all? I have found that your work, Jimmy Dunn’s, N. T. Wright’s, Darrell Bock’s, B.F. Meyer’s, E.P. Sanders, etc. brings energetic dynamics to our vision of our canonical /creedal Jesus. IMO, the flattened out Jesus of soterian evangelicalism is a bore compared to the Jesus we can come to know and serve.

  • Rodney Reeves

    Is it too simplistic to see the difference like this? One group of Jesus scholars is involved in a quest of the historical context of Jesus (stripping Jesus of his canonical clothes and redressing him in the historical garments of their choosing), while the other group is pursuing a quest of the historical gospels (making sense of the canonical clothes Jesus is wearing).

  • scotmcknight

    John, historical context for the Jesus of the Gospels can be very helpful for bringing to the surface historical resonances at work in the text. HJ studies reconstruct Jesus over against what the Gospels say and the Creed says.

    Rodney, perhaps so. But I’m at a loss in trying to get folks to see what HJ study is really all about. It seems most think HJ study is about giving us a Jewish view of Jesus.

  • At this point I’d just like to step in and say to Scot, “YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

    Alright, that’s all I’ve got for now. Carry on.

  • CGC

    Hi Scot,
    The irony in your point about HJ is simply about giving us a Jewish view of Jesus is how non-Jewish so many of these HJ studies conclusions end up being!

  • Point 4 is incredibly important. Thanks for that needed distinction!

  • Scot. I am wondering what the “tools” are that you expect will get you “behind” the biblical Jesus and the Jesus of the earliest believers. I’ve read widely on the Apostolic Fathers and, after having read much of what they have to say, have come to the conclusion that the de-theologising of Jesus is an impossible undertaking. At best. 99% of what we have in writing about Jesus by those before the 3rd CE was penned by folks who thought he was divine and thought that he rose from the dead.

    We’re both doing precisely the same thing, you and I. You’re entering into the historical study with certainty that the church “over-theologized” Jesus, and I’m entering into it with the opposite assumption. It is absurd to imagine that one can be objective, especially in historical Jesus studies, precisely because the fate of all mankind rests on whether or not the Church got it wrong (seriously). If you can enter into that research without fear and trembling and without great hope projected toward your desired outcome of the Jesus narrative, then you must not understand the implications of your object of study. I don’t know what you believe about Jesus in the depths of yourself, but you may want to take a moment and reflect on the severity of whatever assumptions you’re working with. And that goes for anyone doing HJS. If Jesus rose from the dead, as is attested to with greater numbers and sheer force than any other single incident in his life, then what we do with our lives, including our methods and suppositions in research, is more important than….well, anything. But if the Church got it wrong and he’s still dead, it really isn’t that big of an issue. Dust to dust.


  • Sam

    Your first two points seem to assume that the creeds flow directly out of the gospels. I find that the creeds are more a result of the Church trying to resolve rational or Greek questions that people were asking of Jewish scriptures. I know you want avoid the creed vs canon debate, but this is narrowing the usefulness of the HJS.
    You have also narrowed down HJS to the part that only undermines the canonical Jesus. I think there is a part of HJS which helps understand the canonical Jesus better which you could end up discarding because it is part of the HJS. Would we recognize today the Jewishness of Jesus had it not for the HJS?

  • And by my rather long and borderline “hellfire and brimstone” comment, I mean that HJS is incredibly important for the church.

  • nash

    Scott, sounds like you are saying it is OK to study Jesus as long as you start with the premise that he is whatever the church (or more precisely, you) says he is.

    You say: “Historical Jesus studies are decidedly contrarian to orthodoxy and the church and even the Gospels…” But who is the arbitor of what the gospels say? And which church? Which of the 400,000 denominations’ orthodoxy is the standard?

    And if you think “reconstruction” is at odds with church creeds, it might be because the church creeds are so contradictory and at odds with historical evidence. It sounds like you are saying that we ignore the clear evidence of history because they are at odds with church creeds.

  • Scot McKnight

    Sam, well, much to dispute with you. I don’t assume that and neither do I say the creeds flow directly; they are a development. My point is this: that creedal stuff is what the church has believed about Jesus since that time (and well before it no doubt).

    I have not narrowed HJS so much as defined what it has been since Reimarus. The aim of HJS studies is critical with respect to the Gospels.

    Yes, HJS studies do help, but often indirectly. Plenty of Christians studied Judaism before HJS and apart from them — though now we don’t look to them so much: John Lightfoot and Alfred Edersheim come to mind.

    John, I think you’ve equated me with HJS in a way out of sync with the post itself. I deeply value the patristics.

    Nash, to be sure, interpretation gets involved. But the Gospels are the church’s portrait of Jesus. Before we read them they are that. Your last point doesn’t seem to be what my post is about.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    Well, I was wondering when the hammer was going to fall on Scot 🙂 HJS are a modern invention and yet being out of step with them is a challenge to the academic status quo. I quess being a contrarian depends upon which side of debate or discussion one finds oneself. Actually, I am happily surprised on Scot’s views here. A breath of fresh air for some of us even if it’s not for others. Keep us working at issues and thinking Scot—-Thanks!

  • Scot, you seem to think “reconstruction” equates to “revisionism”. That is not necessarily the case. Or, at least, it does not have to be…

    I think there are many of us who start to understand what you mean, but then perhaps you lose us again with your seemingly idiosyncratic use of generic “history” terms.

  • Like button. This is very well said and the church and scholars should listen. Basically we can choose from 1st century options but we can’t hope to do better than the people who expericed him live.

  • Scot I admit to being a little confused, but that’s nothing out of the ordinary! When I hear “Historical Jesus Studies,” I hear, “study Jesus in his historical context.” And I see great value in that from an apologetic point of view, to show people that the record of Jesus found in the gospels is historically reliable.

    But that is not what you are contrary to. You are contrary a programmatic school of thought which says, “the gospels are of little historical value, so let’s peel off the layers of mythological veneer and get back to the real historical Jesus.” Am I correct?

    So you are not against efforts of scholars like Wright and Witherington et al to show that the Jesus of the gospels fits very well into the mileu of first century Judaism, and that the gospels should be considered credible historical accounts. Right?

    Or, if I am misreading you, could you explain a little more?

  • Phillip B.

    After Solomon, Israel split unevenly into the House of Israel, and the House of Judah. Israel was taken away to Assyria, while Judah to Babylon where the word ‘Jew’ was created to denote citizen of Judea. In 125 BC the twelve tribes of Edom were integrated into the three tribes of Judah (becoming Jews) while Israel was still being sifted through the nations (Isa 30:26).

    By the time of Jesus, the House of Judah had been enslaved in Egypt, in Babylon. The House of Israel had been enslaved in Egypt and still were, while the Edomites had never been enslaved anywhere (Isa 34:5-8, Jer 49:7-22, Oba). So for the Jewish King (Herod) and his line to be an Edomite sitting in place of the House of David, and for Pharisees to claim they had never been enslaved to anyone (John 8:33) though they were the off-spring of Abraham, NOT to raise flags with the biblical studies crowd, who want to rewrite Jesus apart from the church, and in His proper Jewish context (treating ‘Jewish’ and ‘Israelite’ without distinction), is somewhat disconcerting.

    The church may have gotten Jesus correct, but its traditions certainly haven’t gotten other things right. So though the Gospels should be the principle source informing our view of Jesus, we shouldn’t simply exempt the traditional church view from critical scrutiny, just as we shouldn’t simply abandon orthodoxy for the sake of being in vogue.

  • Scot McKnight

    Shane Yes! That is the distinction and my point.

  • scotmcknight

    Bill Heroman, “history” is the discipline of determining facts and creating a narrative explanation of those facts. In HJS, “reconstruction” is all about “revision.”

  • Bev Mitchell

    To whoever wants to help me out,

    (1) Well outside of my reading and study zone here and probably confused but, what is the difference between the premise of the HJS project and Arianism? I suppose one could answer that it’s method is to take no starting position on the nature of Jesus, therefor it isn’t Arianism. But, to not take the starting position that Jesus is the incarnation of the Father-Creator, is, for all intents and purposes, at least a kind of Arianism, no? Unless one suggests that he is the incarnation of some other god. 🙂

    (2) The Jewish world of Jesus and his place in and understanding of it is another matter altogether. Independent of their view of the nature of Jesus, those interested in the fullest possible understanding of who Jesus was (in the sense of his cultural and religious context) would want to know all the details that could be established by historical methods. This is where I see N.T. Wright coming from.

  • scotmcknight

    Bev, “incarnation of the Father”? Incarnation of God is orthodox.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Yes, thanks. Too flowery with the writing.

  • CGC

    Hi Bill (#27),
    I noticed on your blog you take strong exception to Scot’s views on this topic. I would hope you woud share substantive concerns with Scot for dialogue.

  • John C. Gardner

    Scot McKnight,
    Have you developed the points that you made in this post in your written works? If so, could you tell me where to start to read about your perspective?
    Thanks and blessings in Christ.
    John G.

  • Scot said (#32): “history” is the discipline of determining facts and creating a narrative explanation of those facts. In HJS, “reconstruction” is all about “revision.”

    I agree about the HJS enterprise, and I am not particularly a fan of that. However, your definition of history is severely wanting, here. To say historians merely determine facts and explain them, well, I suppose that aligns well with the apologetic enterprise, of which I’m also not particularly a fan.

    History is much more. We can, should and must attempt to describe the past, illustrate the past, illuminate the past, and hopefully understand the past. What is more, we must inevitably construct new narratives in order to explore and to embrace and to re-present this past (to ourselves and to others). What I just said is as true for Julius Caesar as it is for John Adams as it is for the *one* true Christ, our Lord, Jesus, as we find him in the Gospels.

    Take the Gospels as you do, as I do, as we in the church do, and yet one must *still* go on to re-process for oneself. As Anthony LeDonne pointed out, we cannot *not* re-narrativize Jesus. And as I tried to explain in my blog-rant Monday night, the choice is not apologetics or HJS or nothing (as you repeatedly suggest). Rather, the choice for the church is whether we are going to be disciplined in the ways we historiographically reconstruct (re-narrativize) the Lord’s life, or else christians everywhere will simply continue using their imaginations willy-nilly.

    Again, “reconstruction” is not always revisionism. Forget HJS. The best historians, imho, have always produced re-presentations that are faithful to their subject matter.

    Enough. Thanks again for the dialogue.

  • scotmcknight

    Bill, my definition is the same thing you are saying in your par that begins “History is much more…”.

    “Take…”: Yes, but that’s not my point. The categories of interpretation there — Messiah, Son of God, etc — those are the church’s categories. We need historical work to perceive them but they are given to us; we do not find others. So I’m for historical illumination of the hermeneutical tradition at work in the Gospels.

    When you say you don’t care about HJS, well, what are we talking about here but that? I contend HJS are a species of historical study, and a special one at that, and my theses are exclusively about HSJ — not history in general. (Though I’m not so sure we disagree much — if your paragraph instantiates your view, then we’re on the same page.)

    I would urge you to read my discussion of historiography in Jesus and His Death — I interact with Elton, Carr, White, etc…

  • scotmcknight

    One more – at this late hour:

    I’ve read the historical Jesus studies from Reimarus on, and a particularly incisive study is that of Schweitzer.

    Now a question: In that scholarship, name the scholars who were HJS scholars who concluded Jesus was Messiah, Son of God, divine (as in John 1), Immanuel, Lord, the true Son of Man from Daniel 7, etc.

    This is the point I am making: that scholarship, which is what HJS is all about, uniformly had a different “hermeneutical” category by which to explain Jesus than those used by the church.

  • So by HJS you mean only people who ascribe to that particular viewpoint in their interpretations? So you’re basically saying that it’s just a different worldview? A couple of years ago I went to East Africa for the first time. Before I landed I had done a great deal of research, heard numbers of stories from those who’d gone before me, and learned the grammar of Swahili. After I spent three weeks in Nairobi, living with Kenyans in the slums, I realized that what I’d read about and heard were nothing on the ground. I wouldn’t have ever been able to adopt their worldview in my research about their country. Not even now, having spent about four months with those people, on the ground, in their shacks. How can we ever be so bold to imagine we can adopt the worldview of a culture that doesn’t even exist anymore. Hell, anybody who reads Greek and Hebrew understands that there’s a lot that we don’t–can’t–know. And that’s just the language! To adopt the worldview of what they really meant by χριστος? What if their ideas were altogether changed concerning the significance of that hope-charged word once they caught sight of the dude-god with flowing locks? And what if there really were just a dozen or so young men who really got to know him and love him as a father and a brother?

    There are just too many what if’s to get anywhere without faith. Faith in methods, faith in scholars, faith in deep blue or red cloth-over-board lexicons with golden gilt. Nah, that last one is just lust. Hah.
    Anyway, that’s my spiel.


  • Richard Worden Wilson

    I realize that you wanted to set aside the “Creed vs. Canon debate,” but the analogy between this and the HJS is too close to ignore.
    ISTM that if one is to honorably stand in honest contrariness to HJS’s hermeneutical predispositions one needs to eschew creedal presuppositions as well. Not being a scholar I don’t have to present myself as one with purely historical intentions, and as a believer in and follower of Jesus can espouse a canonical hermeneutic without creedal caveats. Still, from my perspective, HJS’s pre-criteria for textual analysis are not substantially different from those of orthodox creedal ones, or for that matter those of Oneness or Mormon theologians. All theological commitments subsequent to canonical/Apostolic ones are developments beyond the Word as received, are commitments to beliefs as re-conceived rather than those revealed by God. This must be so unless one is committed to all church teaching as also being the revealed word of God, which reasonably leads to the conclusions of panentheists, that God is evolving as manifested in every tradition. My inclination is to see post-Apostolic creedal formulations as having the kind of limited value other denominational creedal statements have, as locally significant, but not eternally binding, nor necessarily spiritually illuminating.

    In the Protestant realm there seems to be a hypocritical tendency to assert that the creeds must be affirmed because the Spirit of God has lead the church while not simultaneously acknowledging that the church can and has gone its own way, ignoring the Holy Spirit. Of course, the churches can be right in some ways and wrong in others, but it still looks hypocritical to use the “leading of the Holy Spirit” as justification for affirming the creeds as a “second canon” while rejecting Apostolic succession or the authority of pre-existent churches that claim continuity with the leading of the Holy Spirit such as the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches do.
    Hypocrisy. Yup. This needs to be addressed straight on, just as much as the inadequacies of HJS need to be. JMO

  • CGC

    Hi Richard,
    Hypocrisy and inconsistency, yup, there is no denying that. But isn’t your answer to throw out the creeds for what? What are you really proposing in their place? Be honest here . . . What creedal statements of let’s say the Apostles creed do you think are not spiritually illuminating and what do you really propose would be more spiritually illuminating? I hear your plea for honesty and consistency so why don’t you lay your cards on the table then? (as a Protestant, I know we are messed up big time but the Eastern Orthodox seem to be much more consistent and right on some of these issues and they also firmly believe in the creeds!). Even if we say there should be no creeds (like my church tradition does), then that simply becomes a new creed along side a lot of other confessions and creeds even when people say there should not be any).

  • Mark Farmer

    Thanks to your link, Scot, I attended the second day of the conference. I was hoping you would respond to the questions raised about your contribution. thank you.

    I see the agenda of HJS as simply being that of seeking the truth, insofar as possible, about the formation of the gospels. Since all truth is God’s truth, and since the Church is called to be the champion of truth, to say that the Church’s truth is permanently defined by the Creeds undermines the deep connection between the Church and actual truth. I is a lapse into “truth is what we say it is.”

    The Reformation principle, as Wright argues, is to get back to the original sources, even if it ultimately requires reformulating our definition of Christianity. Isn’t that what Phyllis Tickle’s Great Emergence is all about?

  • Scot,

    I didn’t say I don’t care about HJS. I said I’m not a big fan and it’s not my focus in this convo.

    Btw, your 2005 book is $42 used on Amazon and $55 new, hardback. I really wish I could order it now, but I will try to find it in a library soon. Until then, you keep agreeing with me about my criticisms, but your published writings and blog posts continue seeming to say something else. I’m sorry, I don’t know how else to say that.

    The overall gist I keep getting is that you’re towing the old line about not writing a fifth Gospel. However, if you truly understand what historiography is, and does, then you ought to know that such is not automatically a danger. Further, we all realize your main point is to draw a line keeping HJS out of the church sanctuary. Fine. But in terms of christian hermenutics, you continue speaking in terms as if “history” is only for discerning what the Gospels can give us. Never for re-narrativizing. Do you agree or disagree?

    As Le Donne pointed out on his blog yesterday, the church re-narrativizes Jesus all the time.

    The only point I keep trying to push is that the *church* should begin doing this with more care, and doing it with more historiographical methods, though not with less faith.

  • CGC

    Hi Mark,
    You said you see the agenda of HJS as simply seeking after truth. When one looks at the history of HJS, it seems to this observer that the agenda is to throw out the divinity of Jesus and anything that smacks of the miraculous. This does not mean this is what you are doing but this is what has been done over and over by HJS has it not? Nobody is suggesting that we ignore or not get back to the original sources and nobody is saying the church creeds define the earlier sources. What some of us are saying there are many ways of doing historical studies and not only by the precise science of HJS. And some of us are saying there is a development and inter-relationship between the canon and creeds. They should be studied together rather than pitting them against each other.

  • scotmcknight

    Bill, thanks. Yes we re- narrate. Yes we need to do it with care. But there is for me a huge difference in intent. One reconstructs behind the Gospels the real Jesus distorted by church. The other path does not do that. My post is about what HJS intends. That is why I said after 2d point what I did.

  • nash

    Scott, your response to me said: “But the Gospels are the church’s portrait of Jesus.”

    Which “church” is that? Over the past 2,000 years, there have been tens of thousands of “churches” with Jesus portraits that span a very large spectrum. Some people — either for historical or spiritual purposes — study history in an attempt to determine which portrait comes closer to the truth.

    On one level, as John Hundley notes above, trying to recreate an ancient midset is extremely difficult, so we will never know for sure. But the alternative is to blindly accept the portrait of whatever church you happen to wander into.

  • Alan K

    Which is more real: the historical Jesus or John’s Gospel? Did the author of the fourth gospel want us to “historicize” or did the author want us to let the narrative have its way with us?

  • “. . . a bit like Jimmy Dunn, but not identical . . .”

    Having just had the pleasure of reading Dunn’s Christology in the Making for a doctoral seminar, I’d say (thankfully) more unlike that alike. I’m not sure how that work was/is of any use to the church.

  • CGC

    Hi Alan K,
    Great question . . . 🙂

  • Scot McKnight

    Nash, the church that recognized and recognizes the canon as God’s Word and apostolic tradition.

  • I’m certainly not arguing for blind acceptance of whatever the authorities of a given tradition spout. I’m just a little bit more concerned about keeping humility in the midst of human fallibility, while at the same time surging forward with scholarly discussion and debate. It’s all vanity at the end of the day anyway, might as well have some good discussions over smooth pints.

  • This is a helpful post and comments for HJS. Thanks to Scot & commenters. Bookmarked!

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    CGC @ #43 says:
    Hi Richard,
    “isn’t your answer to throw out the creeds…?”

    RWW: NO. I’m not throwing out the creeds at all. I just don’t think we should start with them and try to work our way back to the truth of the Gospel as does most of orthodoxy. If one could get straight to the Nicene-Constantinoplan Creeds directly from scripture I would be all for them. Because they are the result of a long process of developing thought, and particularly an accretion of possibly reasonable but ultimately non-compelling arguments and rationalization going beyond what scripture itself says, I think they should be considered equivalent to pseudepigrapha, interesting historical documents and writings, but not authoritative. Relativized, not trashed; acknowledged as non-authoritative, while respected for what they can tell us about the history of the Church.

    CGC: “What are you really proposing in their place? Be honest here . . .”

    RWW: How about the creeds of the canon of scripture instead? Why not? I don’t think the Apostles creed espouses anything not explicitly in scripture or very closely equivalent. Still, our best shot at understanding what God was saying through scripture itself is to “go outside the gates” with the Apostles in their Jewish distinctiveness. By the time you get hundreds of years down the road from the Apostles there seems to have been considerable “mission creep” in all kinds of ways, both doctrinally and in practice, ultimately subverting the Gospel and distorting Jesus. The most “spiritually illuminating” source of knowledge of God is scripture.

    Saying that “our only creed is scripture” doesn’t seem to me to be another creed at all. “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Life does not come from the words of men, nor their dried up moldy bread.

    The traditions of men can be put along side scripture for comparison sake, and are in that process seen by many positively or negatively, or a little of each. I find the traditions subsequent to scripture to have some good and some not so good, but I don’t say that about scripture. Affirming the post-Apostolic creeds as valid restatements of scripture seems to me to be one of the supreme ways in which believers begin speaking just before they say “I am of this tradition” or “I am of that tradition,” “we’re right and you aren’t.” Ultimately, I think that affirming the creeds, no matter how grand their tradition, should be considered fatally flawed because there is no point in history in which anyone can stop and say to the traditions of men: “this far an no farther.” Either you adopt the view that says God has and continues to work through THE CHURCH (take your pick of which strand!), or God is working through all the churches (and HJS?–which would be complete Gospel chaos) as in panentheism. In either case you can’t work your way back to simple biblical truth with a “scripture AND…” hermeneutic–explicit or implicit. Obviously one can adopt some mediating position between these two, but you can’t say it consistently; hence the charge of “hypocrisy.” Creedal-ism is another form of Historical Jesus-ism.

  • VGS

    Scott, your definitions and approach fits well within evangelical expectation. Steve (#11) reads you as squarely within his horizon (I don’t think so!): “[HJS] flys (sic) in the face of inspiration and inerrancy. Either we believe the Bible or we don’t.” I find Nash’s questions/comments (#24) on point: “who is the arbitor of what the gospels say? And which church? Which of the 400,000 denominations’ orthodoxy is the standard?. . . It sounds like you are saying that we ignore the clear evidence of history because they are at odds with church creeds.” My sentiments exactly.

    And if you think “reconstruction” is at odds with church creeds, it might be because the church creeds are so contradictory and at odds with historical evidence.

  • scotmcknight


    1. My approach certainly should not be assigned to the evangelical camp; the view fits more squarely in the history of orthodox faith. Martin Kähler was no evangelical; he was a Lutheran German theologian. Opposition to the rise of HJS arose from all sectors of the church’s theological core.

    2. In fact, I would not be surprised to find many evangelicals troubled by the view I articulate because evangelicalism’s apologetics is thoroughly modernistic when it comes both to our ability to know and our approach to knowing — empiricism works well for evangelicalism.

    3. On Nash … Yes, those points are important but they are the problem we have in knowing not in knowing where we find the Jesus/Christ of our faith. Yes, even among the orthodox there are varieties of christologies, but the big point is this: They don’t reconstruct Jesus on the assumption the Gospels are (or may be) wrong or that they go things distorted and we have to get back to the pre-interpreted Jesus. The HJS does; the approach I advocate says Our Jesus is the Jesus of the Gospels; more developed in the Creed.

    4. As I read you, you are making the claim that diversity of perception of the Gospels and Creeds is the same kind of knowledge as the HJS. I don’t think so: that knowledge is an intentional getting behind the Gospels and “over against” the Gospels. That’s a lot different than “We differ on how to read the christology of Mark.”

  • CGC

    Hi Richard,
    First, thanks for the very solid answer you give (I understand it because that is where I used to be but I am not there anymore). I think the Eastern Orthodox more dynamic “living tradition” versus dead traditionalism as a model for Scripture, tradition, and church is a better model than sola Scriptura or the Restoration model I inherited from Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone.

    Secondly, I susupect you are more connected to the creeds than you affirm here. I mean, do you believe in the Trinity? How abour the full humanity and divinity of Jesus as the creeds speak about? Unless your theology is something “different” than what has been classical “orthodoxy” then the creeds have shaped your faith in more ways than you readily seem to suggest (except for possibly saying I start with Scripture and work my way up to the creeds, which any of us could say from the church fathers to the present). I don’t think anyone here is saying as you suggest we start with the creeds and work our way back. I just think honesty says the Scripture and Creeds have effected our theology and “tradition” and our heritage in more ways than sometimes we want to readily adimit to. As far as what positions are “isms” is for a different discussion. All I can say Richard as someone who says we need to get back to the earliest documents, the traditioning and narrating process is a part of all history, even Scripture. I think a better model of ‘Scripture alone’ is ‘the primacy of Scripture’ with all the rest of history and God’s Spirit giving more light to various people down throughout all of history which is ultimately “God’s history” or “His-Story.”